Lancashire County Council budget: Tories promise to listen to consultations and Labour condemns a "Valentine's Day Massacre"

The 1pm debate at County Hall lasted until early evening
The 1pm debate at County Hall lasted until early evening
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Public consultations over the future of services earmarked to be axed in Lancashire County Council’s latest budget will be “genuine”, the authority’s leader has said.

Geoff Driver was speaking at a near seven-hour session of the full council which debated proposals to reduce County Hall’s budget by £77m.

WATCH & READ >>> Protesters defend the value of services which could be scrapped

Consultations are yet to begin on several of the savings options, including plans to withdraw a scheme which provides respite for the parents and carers of children with special educational needs and disabilities.

But the Conservative leader insisted that the council was willing to react to the public’s response.

“I can assure councillors and those wishing to let us have their views, that we have sufficient flexibility in the budget to amend it if we are persuaded to do so by the result of the opinions expressed,” he said.

READ MORE >>> Easy-to-read guide to the county council's budget plans

Around £6.5m of the savings depend on the outcome of public consultation, including plans to end the Lancashire Wellbeing Service for those facing health and social issues. The remainder can start to be implemented from April after the council approved the ruling group’s plans.

However, Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali dubbed the budget the “Tories’ Valentine’s Day Massacre”.

“It is a massacre that will lead to more pain for the sick, elderly, disabled and weak. People will die as a result of some of these cuts,” he warned.

“This consultation is a sham – this administration does not listen to consultations, it is purely a vehicle for shutting services.

”It will cost more in the medium term as there is no other capacity out of there in the [voluntary] sector to fill the gaps.”

The budget will also see County Hall’s share of council tax rise by 3.99 percent – the maximum allowed without a referendum – adding £52 the annual bill of a Band D household. One percent of that increase has been ringfenced for social care, as permitted under a government policy which allowed additional increases over the three years to 2019.

County Cllr Driver said he had proposed the increase with “some reluctance” and added that the authority had to see if it could be more efficient.

“This county council spends more than many others on some services – there be very good reasons for that, but we need to know why it is and see if we can reduce our expenditure in line with what other local authorities spend.

“But we will always ensure that we protect the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens,” he said.

Much of the debate focused on the plans to cut the Breaktime service and Labour County Cllr Sobia Malik read a letter to the chamber on behalf a thirteen-year-old boy called Alistair, who has autism.

“[Respite] is the only time I get to see people of my own age outside of school. It can be a bit boring being stuck with your Mum and Dad. I think I’ll be a bit lonely without it – it does make sad sometimes when I think about,” members were told.

But Conservative councillor Andrew Gardiner accused her of “using children”.

“My son is autistic – on a Sunday he plays football and has a fantastic time, but he doesn’t rely on anything from the council. To come to this meeting and [always have to] listen to ‘we must protest’ is ridiculous”.

Laying out Labour’s plans for their alternative budget, County Cllr Tony Martin condemned the then coalition government for “ripping up the postwar funding settlement”.

“The long-standing practice of government grant, council tax and business rates making up a council’s funding was abandoned and councils were told ‘You’re on your own’.

“County Cllr Driver said [when in opposition] that he would show people that all these cuts would never have to take place – it’s so good to see what changes being in charge brings.”

Labour’s proposal was to not to cut the Breaktime and Wellbeing services, amongst several others.

But their own solution was equally controversial in Conservative eyes, because it widened the council’s deficit by £10m.

“What we’re arguing about is four percent of the budget – you agree with the majority of the savings we’re actually making,” Tory member Christian Wakeford said.

The Liberal Democrats said they could not support Labour’s plan and outlined their own, which also reversed some of the planned cuts – but paid for them by reducing agency staff and increasing income from the council’s assets.

“We must stop the rot on Lancashire’s roads,” Lib Dem group leader David Whipp said, putting forward one of his party’s priorities.

“We are convinced it makes financial sense to invest in road resurfacing schemes.

“Filling potholes when the rest of the road is falling to bits – and when those pothole fillings are falling out after less than twelve months – is false economy,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Green Party's sole county councillor condemned the absence of energy efficiency and green energy schemes from the budget plans.

Papers presented to the meeting revealed that the council will have to find a further £46m of savings to clear the remainder of its structural deficit by 2022. That figure stood at nearly £200m two years ago.

Reserves will remain available to cover any budget gaps for the next four years. The meeting heard that the biggest budget pressures are in the adult and children’s services departments, with £65m set aside to cover any further increase in demand in those two areas, as part of a £75m overall contingency.

But the medium-term budget has factored in additional social care cash from government, which has so far only been confirmed for 2019/20.

Ninety-three percent of savings identified in previous years are on course to be delivered, the council’s budget papers noted.

BUDGET PROTEST

The budget meeting was briefly disrupted by protesters in the public gallery who unfurled a banner emblazoned with the slogan, “These cuts are killing us”.After council leader Geoff Driver had concluded his opening speech commending the budget to councillors, a handful of observers began chanting, “No ifs, no buts – no social care cuts”.

Council chairwoman Anne Cheetham ordered them out of the gallery and adjourned the meeting until they left the chamber.

SAVINGS SUBJECT TO PUBLIC CONSULTATION

County Hall will have to consult before it makes any of the following changes. Here are the details of what is proposed, any risks acknowledged by the council and how it says they can be mitigated.

Health Improvement Services (-£2.175m)

Consultation begins this month

Reduced access to drug and alcohol rehabilitation and tobacco and healthy weight services. Risk of increased burden on NHS, social care and criminal justice system. Plans to support community-based substance misuse programmes, utilise the voluntary and faith sectors and encourage the prescribing of social activities. Invest £0.5m to achieve overall saving.

Lancashire Wellbeing Service (-£2.01m)

Consultation under way

Scrapping of service which provides support for 11,000 people with low-level lifestyle, emotional and health issues. Risk of increased demand on health services and social care. Proposed use of voluntary, faith and community sectors to plug the gap.

Lancashire Breaktime Service (-£1.04m)

Consultation under way

Ending service which provides breaks of at least two hours for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, while they attend group activities. Some children may be formally assessed to see whether they qualify for statutory support, but opportunities for group activity are likely to be reduced even for those who are still entitled to extra help.

Welfare Rights Service (-£380,000)

Consultation due in April

Reduction in the service provided to “lower level” claimants who have enquiries about their benefits. Risk that support will not be available for some vulnerable people “at a time when the council expects the need for that support may grow” - and of likely increased demand on council’s other services. Potential for increased reliance on voluntary and faith sectors to provide help.

School Transport (-£100,000)

Consultation begins this month

Removal of school bus services on which no child entitled free transport has used the route for two years. Pupils living in rural areas are likely to be most affected by the change. Parents will receive 12 months’ notice and no service will cease until September 2020.

Household Waste Recycling Centres (-£734,000)

Consultation under way

Reduction in opening hours of 9am-5pm at all centres and closure of seven facilities for two days during the week - at Barnoldswick, Burscough, Carnforth, Clitheroe, Haslingden and Skelmersdale.

Travellers' sites (-£131,000)

Consultation due in May

Sale of three county council-owned traveller sites. Cabinet agreed last week that conditions would be attached to any sale to ensure that they remained available for traveller use.

Older People’s Day Services (-£79,000)

Consultation due in March

Residents who pay to attend day centres will face a 15 percent increase in charges to bring the fees in line with those paid by statutory services which commission places at the facilities.

OTHER PROPOSED SAVINGS

The following proposals do not require public consultation.

Modernise supported housing (-£3.895m)

Transfer adults with learning disabilities, autism or mental health issues out of residential care or shared housing and into individual flats to increase independence. Council says service users will “have a voice” and be kept fully informed during the transition period.

Reduce residential care home admissions (£-3.39m)

Plan to better explore all options short of residential care, including overnight visits and respite opportunities.

Review home care (£-2.245m)

Assess all care packages delivered by two care workers and aim to replace with a single staff member and appropriate equipment to move the resident.

Children’s social care (-£555,000)

Consider opportunities to “rationalise” the number of family support workers. Risk that fewer families will receive support and that the demands on social workers will increase. Plan to better use “collective capacity across different departments.

Direct payment changes (-£2.5m)

Reduce the amount of money individuals can hold in their direct payment accounts as a fallback from 10 weeks to four.

End taxis for excluded school pupils (-£0.4m)

Excluded pupils will instead be provided with a bus pass. Risk of increase in absenteeism or lateness at Pupil Referral Units and potential for anti-social behaviour on buses.

Better bus lane enforcement (-£-1.958m)

Plan to increase the number of existing bus lanes monitored by cameras.

Change to pay for overnight care staff (-£6.9m)

Plan to pay provide private providers the same sleep-in rate as county council staff. This is the biggest single saving proposed in the budget.

WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?

Labour's budget proposal

Reinstate budgets for services threatened with reduction or removal under Conservative plans, including:

***Lancashire Wellbeing Service

***Lancashire Breaktime

***Welfare Rights Service

***Household waste recycling centres

Also:

***Create nursery schools finding reserve

***Provide additional funding for community transport

***Schemes would be funded from the transitional reserve.

Liberal Democrat budget proposal

Reinstate budgets for services threatened with reduction or removal under Conservative plans, including:

***Lancashire Wellbeing Service

***Lancashire Breaktime

***Welfare Rights Service

***Household waste recycling centres

Also:

***Set up local Lancashire lottery to replace funding lost to charities previously provided by the county council

***Fund staff to market county council facilities

Schemes to be funded by reducing cost of agency staff, increasing staff vacancy and generating additional income from assets.